Saturday, July 12, 2014

Cemetery Surprises in the Athenaeum

It’s a bit unusual for me to be surprised - I’m usually the surpriser. In my fifteen years of cemetery travel, I’ve seen a lot of death-related things, so I’m usually ready for the shocker when it is delivered. However, I was taken aback recently when a strange woman revealed something to me.

It was at an art opening reception at the Philadelphia Athenaeum (more on the Athenaeum later). I was holding my four-year-old daughter near the display case which houses Napoleon’s death mask (see photo above - his head was larger than I expected) when this woman next to us struck up a conversation. I was wearing my “artist” name tag so she asked which work on display was mine. When I told her there were two photographs, one made in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery and the other in Woodlands Cemetery, the floodgates just burst forth. She had many cemetery stories of her own, but strangely led off with this comment: “You know how when you stick your hand through the door grate of a mausoleum, it feels colder inside than out?

I don’t know that I would open a conversation with a complete stranger with a line like that, but I was amused. A few other unusual things happened in relation to that Athenaeum exhibit. Before I continue, I should explain what exactly is an “athenaeum.” It’s a library of sorts, a private repository for documentation and historical artifacts. Most major cities in the U.S. have them. The Philadelphia Athenaeum was one of the city’s early libraries (established 1814), predating the massive Philadelphia Free Library which was not established until 1894. Ben Franklin actually originated the idea of subscription libraries in 1731 when he formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. Wikipedia and the Philadelphia Athenaeum’s own website describe it as:

“a special collections library and museum founded in 1814 to collect materials "connected with the history and antiquities of America, and the useful arts, and generally to disseminate useful knowledge" for public benefit. The Athenaeum's collections include architecture and interior design history, particularly for the period 1800 to 1945. The institution focuses on the history of American architecture and building technology, and houses architectural archives of 180,000 drawings, over 350,000 photographs, and manuscript holdings of about 1,000 American architects.”

Now, it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that such a place houses cemetery-related relics, books, prints, etc. That was my first question to the extremely helpful Circulation Librarian during my first visit. Now, don’t get the mistaken impression that I knew exactly what I was looking for. After my two photographs were juried into the show, I simply stopped by to see the exhibit space at the Athenaeum before the exhibit opened. Honestly, I had no idea what an Athenaeum even was. This was weird because I have worked four blocks away from it for the past thirty years!

Page from the Monumental Bronze Company 1882 catalog of grave markers

Basically, the Philadelphia Athenaeum is one of the few remaining “pay” libraries in the United States. They have some basic fare, popular reading, and a most impressive Renaissance Revival reading room. However, they also have a massive collection of historic and architectural books, documents, portfolios, and trade journals the likes of which I never knew existed. I was actually able to page through an original copy of the (view the pages online here) 1882 catalog for the Monumental Bronze Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut (one of two manufacturers of zinc, or “white bronze” grave markers)! In addition to the Monumental Bronze catalog, they have Sleeping Beauty.

Not the Disney Sleeping Beauty, but the book by Stanley Burns, MD. The first and only time I ever saw this book (and only but briefly thumbed through its deeply disturbing reproductions of nineteenth century postmortem photographs) was in Asbury Park, New Jersey’s Paranormal Books and Curiosities shop. This oversized, coffee table book was $300, new. A steal at the time, in 2007; now they're $300 used, and $700 for a collectible, i.e., an autographed copy, as shown above. Its a coffee table book in the sense that you would never leave it on your coffee table for anyone to see. I was even reluctant to return to the Athenaeum to browse through its pages; I almost felt like requesting a small dark private room in which to do so.

Paging through the book, "Sleeping Beauty"
Here’s a link to the book Sleeping Beauty on (you’ll notice there’s no “look inside!” link on the site, to view sample pages.)

It turns out that the Athenaeum has many, many cemetery-related books, or rather, “sepulchral” materials. “Sepulchral,” the librarian told me, is the official library designation search term for such things. And, it turns out, if you search the Internet with that word, you turn up different information than if you search on terms like, “cemetery,” “monuments,” “grave stones,” or “graveyards.” Very useful information for one such as myself.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, print by John Notman, 1847
As I mentioned earlier, The Philadelphia Athenaeum was established in 1814. So what, pray tell, has it been doing with itself for these past two hundred years? And why have so few people heard of it, so few enthralled by its hidden wonders? Turns out the organization was a rather closed society until 2007 when a new director took over. Since then, the Philadelphia Athenaeum has been much more open and welcoming to the public and is totally worth a visit. Where else will you find a vintage brass inkwell formed into the shape of Napoleon’s burial crypt?

Athenaeum exhibit image, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia by Ed Snyder

To celebrate its Two Hundredth Anniversary (in 2014), the Athenaeum decided to host an art exhibition, featuring renditions of historic buildings and sites around Philadelphia. I was fortunate to have two of my photographs juried into the show. One of them, incidentally, was an image I made in Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery (which won third place in the exhibition, see above). Laurel Hill was designed in 1836 by the same man who designed the Athenaeum building in 1845 - Scottish architect John Notman (1810-1865). Laurel Hill was the nation’s second rural garden cemetery (Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts was the first).

"Woodlands," by Ed Snyder
Here is the second of my two photographs which were juried into the “PhiladelphiaAthenaeum: 200th Anniversary Art Exhibition." The exhibit features the work of local artists portraying Philadelphia’s rich collection of historical places. This image was made during a heavy snowfall at Philadelphia's Woodlands Cemetery. If you plan to visit the Athenaeum, the exhibit (which ends August 8, 2014) features about sixty truly delightful images in various media (the gallery is the first room on the right as you enter the building). Enjoy the Philadelphia Athenaeum's other offerings as well - it may hold as many surprises for you as it did for me.

For a good introduction of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, this article from describes how old world, yet cutting-edge it is!